You may be a bit puzzled to meet someone wearing t'chelet-blue tzitziyot and a kosher beard but no kippah. It's because there is a people who are not Jewish, but who have, one by one, been feeling a tug back to things Hebraic. Only after we were convinced that this was the right path did we find others who felt the same pull, because it was not the teaching of men that called us back, but the "still, small voice" of the one who chooses to be known chiefly as the Elohim of Israel.
We have taken on much more as well--such things as the Sabbath and festivals, binding t'fillin, niddah rules, eighth-day circumcision-—in short, observing as much of Torah as we can.
Is this a fad? Are we just "Jewish want-to-be's"? Or is there something much deeper behind it?
The answer is found in the very ancient prophecies of Israel given during first-Temple times. The return of the Jews to Jerusalem in our own generation is miraculous enough in itself to prove our Creator keeps His promises. Yet it’s not the whole story.
The same Scriptures that tell us about the Exodus from Egypt also say that one day the recalling of Israel from among all nations will eclipse the first Exodus so overwhelmingly that we'll no longer even mention it! If you're Jewish, you no longer have to end Passover with, "Next year in Jerusalem!" You can already move back. But the numbers there barely exceed those who came out in the Exodus--and the seder hasn't changed. We still mention the first Exodus. So there must be something even bigger still to come!
A clue as to just what is found in the fact that Ezekiel was told his vision of the dry bones represented "the whole House of Israel". At the time he started prophesying, the Jews had not even been dispersed yet.
There was, however, another part of Israel that had been.
Not Every Israelite is a Jew
The problem lies in our tendency to think there is a one-to-one correspondence between "Israel" and the Jews. But by definition the Jews are descendants of Yaaqov's son Yehudah, and thus are only one of twelve tribes of Israel. To some extent, the Levites and Benjamites were included in their identifiable heritage. But where are the other tribes?
Yarav'am (Jeroboam), the overseer of the labor force for King Shlomo's magnificent building projects, brought a complaint to his successor, Rehav'am (Rehoboam), about the burdensome workload he was imposing on the other tribes as Shlomo had. The elders concurred that he should indeed lighten their burdens. But instead, Rehav'am listened to his youthful peers, and promised to only make the workload heavier. So the oppressed northern tribes would not accept him as their king. (1 Malakhim/Kings 12) It even angered YHWH (HaShem), who was also displeased because, wise though he was, King Shlomo had many foreign wives and political alliances. This opened the door for idolatry to gain a foothold in Israel.
So YHWH sent the prophet Achiyah to Yarav'am. Achiyah tore a garment into twelve pieces, and told Yarav'am to take ten of them. Only two were left with Rehav'am.
Yarav'am was from the tribe of Ephraim. Thus "Ephraim" became a kind of shorthand for the northern ten tribes, and sometimes it was called the House of Yosef (Joseph), Ephraim's father. The Southern Kingdom was called Judah (Yehudah), from which we derive the term "Jew". The name Israel stayed with the Northern Kingdom, while Judah carried on David's throne. (1 Chron. 5:1-2) And now "the stick of Yosef was in the hands of Ephraim".
Ephraim's namesake was Yosef's son, but Yaaqov adopted him and gave him the right of being in the position of his own firstborn. (Genesis 48) Yaaqov specifically said, "Let my name be upon [Ephraim and his brother Menashe]." (48:16) This means Yosef was given the birthright--a double portion of Yaaqov's inheritance, as was traditional, so there could be someone to rescue his brothers in a time of calamity, as Yosef had already done, proving that his position was rightfully given. So the name Israel (as in v. 15) would first and foremost refer to these two tribes, but the whole Kingdom that was still called Israel was now synonymous with "Ephraim" in the language of the prophets.
YHWH promised to bless Yarav'am if he remained obedient. But Yarav'am was afraid that if his subjects kept going to Jerusalem for YHWH's feasts, they might again become loyal to his now-rival kingdom. So he set up alternative worship sites, and from there the idolatry grew worse. The Northern Kingdom also kept mixing in aspects of neighboring countries' religions, even dedicating altars "to YHWH and His Ashtoreth" (a consort goddess)!
Israel walked more and more "in the laws of the Gentiles" (2 Kings 17:8). "Ephraim mixed himself among the nations" (Hoshea 7:8; 8:8). They wanted to be just like the others, so they were taken from the Land and, with poetic justice, were sentenced to BECOME Gentiles! Only Yehudah was left. (17:18) Yehudah also eventually did some of the same things and was punished, but repented and returned to the Land, and has preserved for the world most of the original ways--the Torah, the festivals, and the Sabbath.
What Became of Ephraim?
YHWH said He would not call Ephraim (a.k.a. the House of Israel) His people anymore. (Hoshea 1:9) He scattered them and they ceased to be a nation, even forgetting they had once been Israelites.
Some citizens of the northern tribes did reject this compromise, and moved south to join the southern kingdom of Judah, but only a token remnant. To properly interpret Holy Scripture, we have to recognize the distinction the prophets made from that time on between Judah and Israel. They're not just poetic synonyms.
Now Israel's rulers grew more and more evil. YHWH sent prophets to dramatize their true condition. Zechariah broke a rod to symbolize symbolize the end of the brotherhood between Judah and Israel. And just as Hoshea's own wife was unfaithful, Israel had committed harlotry, so the kingdom would be brought to an end. Through the names of the two illegitimate children of Hoshea's wife Gomer (born of her harlotry), YHWH laid out the two curses that would be the Northern Kingdom's specific punishment. The first was named Lo-Ruhamah—"no pity", because they had reached the point where He had to discipline, since "those whom YHWH loves He disciplines". They would have to undergo the curses laid out in D'varim that were to fall on anyone who forsook His covenant.
The name of Gomer's next son, Lo-Ammi, means "not My people" (in the collective sense). In other words, there would be many descendants of the northern tribes, but they would no longer be considered one nation. They would be cut off from their roots and be dispersed. They would forget that they had ever had any connection to Judah.
By 722 B.C., YHWH had had enough. He used the Assyrians to carry these Israelites away into exile and resettle them elsewhere. Others had fled when they saw the Assyrians coming. They all assimilated with the nations into which they relocated, and most eventually lost their identity completely. That would help explain why Abraham's descendants can't be counted! Nobody knows who most of them are anymore! From a human standpoint, that is... But YHWH never forgot. He knows where each of the descendants of the Northern tribes is today.
But that's still not the whole story…
Just after the vision of the dry bones, Ezekiel used two sticks to depict Judah and Joseph again being made one in YHWH's hand--a reversal of Zechariah's broken stick. It's a prophecy that one day, somehow, the scattered tribes of Israel would be reunited with Judah.
Yaaqov had prophesied that Ephraim's descendants would become "the fullness of the Gentiles". (Gen. 48:19) People like Yair Davidy, Stephen Collins, and John Hulley have traced the paths of some of them in great detail.
B'reshith (Genesis) suggests that the preponderance ended up mingling with the descendants of Yafeth, a special blessing Noach had given to this son. (9:27) Certain sons of Yafeth are in particular called the ancestors of the "Gentiles who spread out to their coastlands". (10:5) This terminology about the coastlands waiting for YHWH's instruction (Torah) pervades the Tanakh. (e.g., Yeshayahu/ Isaiah 42:4) But YHWH promised Avraham that every family of the earth would "be blessed" through his descendants. (28:14)
Hoshea named his third son Yizre'el ("Elohim will sow" or "scatter"). He did indeed scatter the Northern Kingdom like seeds. But a sown seed is hidden in the ground for the very purpose of later showing up again to bear much fruit. This way, every nation could glean the leftover benefits of Israel's fruitfulness. Amos said YHWH would sift these tribes among all the nations, yet He would not lose track of one kernel. (9:9) "Joseph" would one day, somehow, be reunited with Yehudah. (Ezek. 37:15ff)
In Jeremiah 31, Ephraim slaps his thigh. He'd thought he was an upright man until it was pointed out that he was really still doing many pagan things. This narrows our identification of Ephraim to apparent "Gentiles" who see themselves as obeying "G-d", yet don't generally realize that they are doing it the wrong way. When Ephraim recognizes his error and repents, YHWH says, "Isn't Ephraim (after all) a precious son to Me?"
The prophets repeat this theme over and over so often that within the scope of this short article we cannot cite every reference. But once you see this, it shows up everywhere.
So it is clear that a large group of people whom everyone has thought of as Gentiles needs to return to the covenant of Israel, having always unwittingly preserved that Israelite seed in them.
According to the Torah, if someone loses his connection with his inheritance, and is too poor to buy it back, a relative can buy it back for him:
"If your brother has become poor and has sold away some of his property, then his kinsman who can redeem it should redeem whatever his brother sold." (VaYiqra/Leviticus 25:25)
Most of us were raised as Christians. We no longer are that, but neither do we reject Y'shua hook, line, and sinker as we return to the Torah, because for the House of Israel he is not a marginal figure, but an indispensable aspect of our t'shuvah.
We have left behind the idolatrous worship of Yeshua, but behind every overblown legend there is usually a core of truth from which it grew. There is a big difference between being part of the pagan mixture that the church has become after two millennia of accretions added to and misunderstandings of what he said and stripping them all away to see him in his original form, for when we do, it is obvious that "Jesus" is a sadly-distorted caricature of the real Jewish Yeshua, who said that anything he said must be assumed to fall within the parameters and framework of the "Sh'ma".
Strangely, he was recognized as the Messiah (at least for his own day) by millions who have very little inkling of what it means to be the Messiah! But he recognized that the Messiah's chief role is "to resurrect the tribes of Yaaqov and the faithfully-guarded ones of Israel". (Yeshayahu 49:6) So he made it clear that the aim of his life was to find and recover the "lost sheep of the House of Israel".
On the 40th day of the Counting of the Omer, Yeshua's disciples asked him if this was the time he was going to restore the Kingdom to Israel. (Acts 1:6) Their expectation must have been heightening as he was already climbing the Mount of Olives. They knew the kingdom would begin when Messiah's feet touched that very mountain. (Zech. 14:4)
What he said in reply has often been taken as a denial of that goal, but after three and a half years of teaching them about the Kingdom of Heaven, this is what was foremost in their minds. So Christians have clearly not understood his mission the same way his first followers did.
What he actually said, in essence, was, "It's not for you to know when, but your job in the meantime is to gather the citizens of YHWH's kingdom and teach them the commandments so I will have a knowledgeable people to reign over whenever it is time to take my place on David's throne."
When he said he had "other sheep that are not of this flock" (he was speaking to people from Judah), He was echoing Ezekiel's prophecy that there would be one shepherd for both Yehudah and Israel. (34:23) The New Testament can only be properly understood in light of these promises to regather Ephraim.
That is precisely why so many, though having recognized Israel's Elohim to a limited extent, are pointing to Scripture after Scripture and finally recognizing that their churches just do not line up with it. So in whatever way they can, they're returning to the practices actually mandated by Scripture, forsaking paganism wherever they find it, taking on the Sabbath and the other festivals that are actually found in Scripture, and even learning Hebrew!
It is because we are not mere Noachides. We are Hebrews, just not Jews.
I am your Brother Joseph!
Each tribe has a place and is ordained for a particular task. "Each of the descendants of Israel shall set up camp by his own standard with the insignia of his father's house." (BaMidbar/ Numbers 2:2) Yehudah led the way, but there were other flags, though the whole camp was in unity. Recognizing this is enabling us to take our place as part of Israel, no longer envying Yehudah. (Yeshayahu 11:13)
That is why we do not just take the easy route and convert to Judaism. If we become Jews, who will do Yosef's job?
Not every aspect of our halachah looks exactly like that done by Yehudah. Our pe'oth are not usually so pronounced or defined in the same way. We eat kosher, but some of us might eat milk and meat together, though of course you will never find us boiling a kid in its own mother's milk! (That part is actually in the Torah.) We respect the rulings you have made binding for your tribe, and recognize your far better command of the Hebrew language. But Torah has many facets, and we can't all highlight the same ones. As each of us brings his perspective on the Torah, more levels of meaning will open up, and we will all benefit.
Ovadyah 18 says that the House of Yosef will play a crucial role in the avenging of Yehudah's enemies. So is it any wonder that when most of the world illogically raves about human rights for terrorists, millions are also coming out in support of the state of Israel, and doing so joyfully and eagerly? Most of them do not yet realize that it is because they are actually descendants of Israel too. YHWH is answering your many prayers to restore the exiles of the whole House of Israel--though possibly in a way you never expected!
But the Renewed Covenant of Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 31 "with the House of Israel and the House of Yehudah" cannot be fully in effect until the two houses of Israel are back together. As the firstfruits of the "lost tribes", at present we must be occupied with letting the rest of them know who they are so that we can again be a people (a house of Joseph) ready to unite with the other house--yours. Then Yehudah can indeed walk together with the House of Israel. (Yirmiyahu 3:18)
Until then, be blessed, and may our renewed observance only serve to both encourage you and goad you, too, toward distinguishing pure, solid Torah from mere tradition, and back to being true, unmixed Israel, the set-apart people among whom YHWH can make His dwelling. Shalom!